It's no secret that best-selling author Nicholas Sparks has an unwavering belief that tragedy and love have an obligatory yet strangely peaceful co-existence.
We've seen it in The Notebook. Message in a Bottle. Dear John. The Longest Ride. The Lucky One. A Walk to Remember.
In fact, I'm fairly sure that there may not be another author working today who is as relentlessly tragic amidst professings of love and beautiful shots of rural North Carolina or wherever that particular book and/or film happens to be set.
Since The Notebook was first published in 1996 and turned a full-time pharmacy rep into a New York Times' best-sellng author, Sparks has remained so completely faithful to this brand of storytelling that a quick perusal of BoxOfficeMojo.com quickly reveals that it is actually referred to as a Nicholas Sparks brand.
The Choice is a Nicholas Sparks film. Oh sure, Ross Katz (Adult Beginners) directed it. Rest assured, this is a Nicholas Sparks film. Is that a bad thing? That's up for you to decide. If you've never enjoyed a film based upon a Nicholas Sparks novel in your life, this ain't going go be the one. If, however, you're a hardcore devotee who becomes immersed in the poetic, almost serenely meditative worlds that Sparks creates then it's hard to imagine that you won't be completely satisfied with this gentle, easygoing, beautiful to watch and occasionally endearing film.
The first film to be released by Sparks's new production banner, Nicholas Sparks Productions, The Choice follows the formula that has made Sparks one of America's most beloved authors. All of his books have become New York Times bestsellers with over 100 million copies sold worldwide. Sparks's novels have been translated into 50 languages.
The world loves Nicholas Sparks and with his new production banner Sparks is branching out into television with Warner Brothers Television and is developing a new slate of projects including a musical series, several comedies, a dark family cable drama, and a Young Adult book series for ABC Family among other projects. To hear Sparks describe part of his motivation for moving into production, it's readily apparent that even Sparks has a desire to move on from the narrow literary and cinematic window that has made him a popular, very successful man yet has pigeonholed him as a writer.
Sparks's last two cinematic outings, 2014's The Best of Me and 2015's The Longest Ride, have been the least successful of Sparks's ten adaptations with $26+ million and $37+ million at the U.S. box office respectively. However, all ten films have turned at least a modest profit thanks to fairly moderate production budgets and the tossing in of international receipts.
I expect The Choice, which arrives at a time when decent date flicks are largely absent from theaters, will prove to be a middling success for Sparks unless the Coen Brothers can manage to attract a much wider audience for Hail, Caesar! than anyone expects.
Benjamin Walker (In the Heart of the Sea) is Travis Parker, whom we are introduced to as a smarmy, conceited and perpetually single young man with a penchant for Budweiser and a fierce dedication to spending just about all of his free time on the North Carolina lake where he lives alongside his sister (Maggie Grace) and sometimes girlfriend (Alexandra Daddario). When an attractive medical student, Gabby (Teresa Palmer, Point Break) moves in next door, it doesn't take long to realize that the two are going to have a conflict, going to seem horribly mismatched, going to discover a spark, going to connect, going to disconnect, going to reconnect, going to experience a tragedy, and going to keep love alive through it all.
Fortunately for The Choice, this familiar formula works on the strength of co-leads Walker and Palmer. Walker, a North Carolina native, has a natural southern drawl and a good ole' boy charm that feels like it comes from the Matthew McConaughey school of acting. While Walker's transition from party boy to some degree of responsibility plays out unconvincingly, Walker projects a sort of quiet sincerity beneath his machismo that feels just about right if not particularly deep. As Gabby, Palmer rises above occasionally clunky dialogue and quick transitions to create a sweet, sexy and believably intelligent young woman even if the film itself does seem to drop the whole "serious medical student" thing rather quickly. Tom Welling, most familiar to audiences from his stint as Clark Kent on television's Smallville, is solid when present but mostly wasted as Gabby's doctor boyfriend. The same is largely true for Tom Wilkinson, a tremendous actor who finds depth beyond the written word as Travis's widowed father.
There were times when I felt like I was going to find myself immersed in The Choice, though it seemed like each time we got closer to emotional resonance Katz would pull back and we'd be left with beautiful shots of a North Carolina lakeshore. The Choice is a good film, especially if you enjoy the Nicholas Sparks brand, but it could have been a much better film.
There's a scene about 2/3 of the way through the that I found completely and utterly enthralling. Travis and Gabby are walking amidst a rainshower and stumble across an old country church. It's a relaxed, poignant, spirited and remarkably warm scene that may very well serve as the most authentic scene in the entire film. It's a scene that reveals both the flaws and the true hearts of these characters and how and why they connect. It's simple, beautiful and a few days after having seen the film I can't stop thinking about it.
I just wish we'd had more of that in the film.
The Choice also wraps up far too easily, a fact that may very well please Sparks's legion of fans but will likely prove dissatisfying and unearned by most moviegoers. After having spent a good majority of the film's final 30-40 minutes immersed in the trials and tribulations that were destined to befall our loving couple, we're suddenly and almost jarringly rescued from it in a scene that comes out of nowhere and really doesn't go anywhere other than toward the obligatory happy ending.
The Choice is the kind of film that seems destined to receive scathing reviews from critics who've grown a bit weary of "the formula" and who are likely less vulnerable to Sparks's ability to pour on the overt sentimentality and obvious emotional manipulation. Most moviegoers, however, are not film critics and are much more willing to suspend belief and reason for a couple hours emotion-centered storytelling. Neither as awful as critics will want you to believe or as inspiring as Sparks's fans are likely to project, The Choice is a film about love and choices and real life and how we manage to survive the tragedies and obstacles that come our way. The Choice is exactly what you expect it to be with a few modest surprises along the way, a guilty pleasure for which you really needn't feel all that guilty.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic